As Nazis Hang in Nuremberg, a Playwright Points at an "Empty Noose"

Imagine tuning in to one of your favorite mystery programs and being greeted instead by the following message:

Columbia and its affiliated stations present a special broadcast for Wednesday, October 16, 1946, a day that will long be remembered at Nuremberg and throughout the world.

It was a reminder that criminals greater than those generally found in detective fiction had been brought to justice; yet the broadcast that followed was far from celebratory.

The play was “The Empty Noose,” heard on the evening of that memorable day on which eleven masterminds of Nazi Germany’s crimes against humanity were being executed. The verdict had been announced two weeks prior to the date set for the hanging, giving writer Arnold Perl time to construct with care this provocative memorial, a document in sound that opens with the naming of the sentenced: “Goering, Ribbentrop, Keitel, Kaltenbrunner, Rosenberg, Frank, Frick, Sauckel, Jodl, Streicher and Seyss-Inquart.” Of course, only ten were actually hanged that day, leaving the eleventh noose empty.

“You should have seen them die,” the play’s “Eyewitness” addresses the listener,

seen all but one who arranged it by his own schedule [that is, Goering, who committed suicide] walk in the early morning of a gray cold day while most of Europe slept; seen them hanged one by one in the gymnasium under the electric lights. The ghastly ten who were left behind to where the hangman waited. Like those who watched, he knew, there was no payment large enough for what they had done.

Does the violent end of such violent men constitute the end of an era of violence? Or is this hanging little more than a gesture? Is it a time chiefly to rejoice and hope, or to reflect and doubt? These are the questions raised by Perl’s commemorative docudrama whose action unfolds in the eyewitness reports of those who had experienced life under fascist rule and were now attending the trial and executions.

“The Empty Noose,” like Norman Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph,” refuses to cheer at the apparent victory for democracy, resists uttering or encouraging as much as a sigh of relief. After all, it was not Goering’s noose to which the title of Perl’s piece refers. His “Noose” was reserved for all those fascists who survived, living beyond remorse or reform, those denying the holocaust while harbouring thoughts of genocide, including those active in present-day Germany’s re-emerging Nationalist movement and those, elsewhere, tearing down liberties under cover of democracy.

“What didn’t we do at Nuremberg?” Perl’s play dares to ask, confronting listeners weary of conflict and eager to move on:

Well, that empty noose is still swinging, and it’s still empty. Until it’s used, until it’s choked the life out of Fascism—so far as I’m concerned this is no time, no place—there is no reason—to sit back relieved and calm. Tonight at Nuremberg—and tomorrow—there will still be one round coil of rope ready to be used. It’s going to take a lot of self-examining, a lot of faith in what we believe in, a lot of willingness to fight for it, a lot of speaking out, for all of us, here and everywhere, before that empty noose is filled, and we can stand up and say we have won, we have conquered.

In short—a message the play suggests rather than states plainly lest it promote fatalistic passivity—never.

Non-visual theater is the theater of ideas. While it has rarely been permitted to do so, it can dispense with traditional storytelling, with the Aristotelean dictum that there must be a beginning, middle, and end to any drama. It can raise questions, doubts, and awareness by raising voices and leaving interstices of ambiguous silence. It can resist dramatized exemplars and deal instead with ideological concepts simply by giving them utterance. And it can dangle an empty noose in the mind of its audience, a looming question mark in one’s own head more forceful and than the image of a rope around the neck of another. That image, after all, is a reminder of a time supposedly bygone, a reminder that, once again, someone else was made to stick his neck out to pay for our complacency and complicity.

The living breath of the voices on the air create no such conclusive image; instead, they caution us to be mindful, mindful of a present in which, around and within us, freedom and fascism run neck and neck for our future.

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